- Depending on the country, women in Muslim parts of the world have varying experiences; they face different obstacles in trying to participate in sports. Even so, these female athletes have a few things in common. They all must try to navigate the complexity of their identities. Individually, girls and women make decisions for themselves based on their values, obligations, expectations, affinity to sport and whatever else it is that makes them who they are. Below, we’ll explore some of the ways girls and women in Muslim countries might experience sport. Keep in mind that there is no single “female Muslim” experience.
Navigating Their Personal Identities
In light of the traditional Islamic practices and the lack of resources (leagues and/or facilities) which accommodate them, many Muslim girls and women must decide what it is they’re comfortable with, based on their values, obligations, expectations, affinity to sport and other facets of their identities. It’s a personal struggle for women to reconcile being Muslim, being a woman, and being an athlete.
Yuka Nakamura studied the experiences of Muslim women who were born in or immigrated to Canada. Obviously, Canada is not a Muslim country. However, we can still learn something about the way Muslim women come to practice their faith while identifying as athletes. Of the twelve subjects in her study, Nakamura found that modesty was the more important issue and posed the greatest barrier. Even so, differences in observances existed. Eleven of the twelve said they’d cover their legs when exercising publically, even if they were in a women-only space; eight said that they wore their hijab during sports even though all of them believed they were supposed to.
Here, we’ll see how different women observe the practice of separating themselves from men during exercise and sports. The women and girls that Kay categorized as traditionalists believes that to participate in sports women need to be out of sight of men. Some of the subjects of Walseth and Fasting’s research show a more nuanced interpretation. They believed that women only need to be out of sight of men if they’re going to be wearing sports attire which shows inappropriate amounts of skin. Some women who were stricter in their observance (they wore the krimar and/or niqab) thought that women, even dressed in their appropriate garments, should refrain from activities which might be sexually exciting to men.
In Catherine Palmer’s research of Muslim refugees, she explains how deciding on a team uniform for the refugees’ soccer team illustrated the complexities of individuals having different practices. Some girls on the team chose to wear typical shorts and tee-shirts while others preferred to play wearing long sleeved shirts and track pants under their uniforms. With regard to headscarves, some girls abandoned their headscarves all together, some opted for a bandana instead of their hijab, others wore the krimar, and some would take off their niqab when they were only with girls. The team’s goal recalled a situation in which girls would remove their hijab to head the ball and then put it back on and resume playing. The team had to overcome issues surrounding “sexualized movements” when the girls learned how to chest the ball.
Consistent throughout the literature was the notion that men and women should not compete together. Even this, however, was not unanimous. Zahra, one of the girls in Nakamura’s research, practiced with and competed against boys in karate. She felt comfortable with this because she was never making “skin on skin” contact. Walseth and Fasting also noted that one participant in their study played soccer with her brothers.